Friday, June 30, 2006

God Talk and Freudian Slips

Job 40:6-9 (New Living Translation)

“Then the LORD answered Job from the whirlwind:
“Brace yourself, because I have some questions for you, and you must answer them. Are you going to discredit my justice and condemn me so you can say you are right? Are you as strong as God, and can you thunder with a voice like his?”

I found the lead to a June 30th E.J. Dionne op-ed quite amusing. “Many Democrats discovered God in the 2004 exit polls,” it said.

Interesting. Sometimes a Freudian slip can tell you a lot about a person or a political party.

It reminded me of a banquet I once attended when I was going to college back in the seventies. The highlight of the evening was a homily given by “the alumnus of the year.” To be honest, the subject of his discourse has escaped me after all these years, but I do remember his fateful slip of the tongue. About half way through his talk a telephone, which was suspended from a column about ten feet to his left, rang. At about the third ring he said, to everyone’s great amusement, “If that’s the Lord, will you please tell Him that I’m going to be busy for the next twenty minutes or so. Tell Him I’ll get back to Him.” At first blush his little slip seemed amusing. But, it was also quite telling. The “alumnus of the year,” filled to overflowing with an over-inflated sense of his own importance, was, in a way, telling the Almighty to take a hike. “I’m busy and I don’t want you interfering with my importance. The people gathered here came to see me, not You!”

I think the Democrats and some of their supporters have a real problem. They believe they’ve “discovered” God. As soon as I read Dionne’s words the same thing occurred to me as it did when I heard the alumnus of the year. Like Columbus who discovered America and Jonas Salk who discovered a cure for polio, the Democratic Party has discovered God. I’m impressed.

I wonder where they found him. Did they find Him in near some bulrushes near the Tidal Basin? Had someone hidden Him near the Jefferson Memorial? Did they discover Him doing stand-up at a Georgetown comedy club?

I hope you’ll forgive me, but I just couldn’t resist. When someone leads with their chin like that it’s just too tempting a target.

But it does raise a serious point. Are Democrats and their supporters really serious about all this God talk?

One of the few Democrats who seems to be taking faith seriously is Barack Obama. As reported by national media, he recently chastised his fellow Democrats for:

“Failing to "acknowledge the power of faith in the lives of the American people, ”and said the party must compete for the support of evangelicals and other churchgoing Americans.”

Later in his presentation he added this bit of wise advice:

“Nothing is more transparent than inauthentic expressions of faith: the politicians who shows up at a black church around election time and claps off rhythm to the gospel choir.”

But, the Democrats have a problem. Their God talk amounts to little more than a snake-oil salesman’s pitch. They’re not going to heed Obama’s advice and they certainly don’t want to hear what evangelical Christians or Muslims or Jews or any other religious groups have to say. All they’re doing is trolling for votes. If a few strategically placed “Praise the Lords” will do the trick, they’ll shout the rafters down and roll in the aisles.

Now I do believe that Barack Obama is sincere. But I believe he’s just being used like a rented tuxedo by his party to “bring in the faithful.” “Tell ‘em we believe, Obama. Tell ‘em we believe…We believe…We believe…We believe…Praise the Lord and pass the ballot box!”

The Democrats have miles and miles to go before they’re going to convince evangelicals like me that they really want more than just my vote and a rubber stamp. As an evangelical Christian I want to have some meaningful input into the great issues of the day. I believe I’ve got something I can contribute. I’d like to work toward improving the lot of America’s poor. I’d like to see America act in a more robust manner in Darfur. I support the idea of creating political mechanisms that would make it possible for many who are now here illegally to become productive American citizens. There are a lot of things on which the Democrats and folks like me could work. Why is it, then, that when we mention faith based initiatives you shut us out? You say you want to preserve separation of Church and state. Do you know what I say to that? Bullshit! You just want to be sure that you’re brand of civil religion is the prevailing religion. Why is it that the Democratic Party’s titular leader and his administration could spend months debating the meaning of genocide while hundreds of thousands were dying in Rwanda. You say you couldn’t intervene without international approval. Do you know what I say to that? Bullshit! You’ve just lost the ability to make sound moral judgments, the kinds of judgments that should be rooted in faith.

In his presentation Obama said that the Democratic Party wants evangelicals like me to participate. That’s good. So do many of us. But we have a problem with the catch. We “must accept some ground rules for collaboration,” we’re told. Well, we’ve been down that road before. We’ve told you that we agree in the principle of separation of Church and state, but that’s not what you want from us. You want us to bring our faith into the halls of power, but you want to be sure that it’s not meaningful faith. In that regard you’ve been very successful over the years. The public square, as Father John Neuhaus has said, is just about naked. And, what’s tragic about it is that the void is being filled by politicians. Neuhaus warned this would happen, and it has:

“The truly naked square is at best a transitional phenomenon. It is a vacuum begging to be filled. When the democratically affirmed institutions that generate and transmit values are excluded, the vacuum will be filled by the agent left in control of the public square, the state. In this manner, a perverse notion of the disestablishment of religion leads to the establishment of the state as church.”

The Democrats have mixed their God talk with a Freudian slip. God isn’t lost. He’s not floating in the Tidal Basin waiting to be discovered. They banished him from the public square years ago and now they want us to believe they’ve discovered Him all over again. Really? They’re gonna’ have to do more than God talk to convince me.
In the 1972 film “Sounder” there’s a scene the Democrats really need to see. A family of depression era black sharecroppers has just left church. There, in a wagon, we see several generations of them. They’ve endured far too many years of oppression, segregation, and neglect. At one point on their journey they hear the sound of music coming from an all white church near the road. As the sound of the hymns drifts past them, the youngest of the family asks his grandfather a question. “Grandfather, what do you suppose those folks are doin’ in there?” “I don’t know child, I’ve never been in,” the grandfather answers.
“You ever tried to get in there?”
“I did once, but they wouldn’t let me.”
“Didja’ ever ask the Lord about that?”
“I did, child.”
“And what did the Lord say?”
“He said if I found a way to let Him know, cuz’ He’d been tryin’ to get in there for two hundred years Himself.”

The Democrats have a problem. They’re singing the right hymns, but they really don’t want any meaningful interaction with God. Like that old sharecropper, God would like to get past the door. He’s actually been knocking on it for a long time, but the Party won’t let Him in.

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E J Dionne

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

A Thorn Among the Roses

Of all the traits we need to cultivate, empathy is the toughest. That’s when somebody’s crying but someone else is tasting tears. Most of us don’t taste anyone’s tears but our own. And we wonder why our souls dry up.”

- Phillip Gulley – “Front Porch Tales”

The City Commissioners met this morning in a study session to discuss Steve Commons’ proposal to eliminate the taxi subsidy that a large number of Emporia’s senior citizens, most of whom are handicapped and living on fixed incomes, have come to depend on for transportation to get groceries, meet doctor’s appointments, and so forth. In addition to the seniors there are others who’ve come to depend on this service, including the handicapped and folks living on the good graces of social welfare. It’s a good and necessary program.

I think that when the city began looking at the program the feeling might have been that a three dollar per ride subsidy wasn’t that much for folks to give up. To most of us, three bucks doesn’t seem to be much at all. I think that, and the prospect of saving the city forty to fifty thousand dollars a year had them absolutely salivating.

Last night’s Gazette should have given them warning. There were four or five letters to the editor, including the one I sent this past Sunday, telling the Commission to back off.

Well, the firestorm continued this morning.

I got to the meeting room at about 8:30. By that time about thirty or so angry constituents had gathered, primed and ready for a fight. The overwhelming majority of them were elderly. Many came leaning on walkers. Some carried oxygen bottles. Some wheezed. At about 8:45 a woman wearing a purple outfit came up the aisle. When she stopped next to me I told her she could have my place. She caught her breath after a few minutes and thanked me. “Are you alright?” I asked. “I am now,” she responded as I helped her get seated. “I have some heart problems and I can’t breathe as well as I used to.”

By about 8:55 it was standing room only. While folks talked, I sat quietly, lost in my thoughts. “You’re pretty fortunate, Phil. You walk two or three hours a day. You’re in good shape. You get a good pension. You’re even collecting social security.” Yet, as much as I realize how fortunate I am, I couldn’t get past the overwhelming sense I was a thorn among the roses. The silver-haired, wheezing, the infirm, the dull of thought, the gravelly-voiced welfare recipients gathering to make their appeal to the city’s leaders were, in heaven’s mind, the flowers that needed tending.

Mayor Jim Kessler called the meeting to order promptly at nine. And, no sooner than he had, the fur began to fly. I was amazed at how much life could still be left in the seemingly lifeless and unimportant. One after another they tore into the commissioners with a fury tempered only by age and wisdom. If they’d been younger I think there might have been a real slobber knocker. It was an absolutely perfect display. An old man in the first row spoke of the operations he’d undergone and the conditions he endures day to day. He spoke of how valuable the three dollar subsidy was to him. A woman dressed in a yellow pant-suit brought a two-hundred signature petition. As the oxygen bottle draped around her neck heaved right to left she expressed, through labored breathing, her displeasure with the City Manager. Another woman, who appeared to be in her late seventies, was more polite. “Please,” she pleaded. “We need this service. Don’t do away with it.”

The commissioners listened politely, appearing to me to be more like Tweedle-Dum, Tweedle-Dee and friends than public servants. They’d tested the political wind and now they were reaping the whirlwind. The only exception to this, it seemed to me, was Bobby Agler.

The more I listened the more the sense of righteous indignation came over me. How could this be happening? Why would a city leader think that curtailing a valuable service to some of Emporia’s most vulnerable citizens was a good idea? Why would he think that it could, or should, pass city muster. I decided I needed to say something. At about 9:40 I launched in.

“I’m not a user of either the cab or bus service here in town, but I think that the idea of eliminating the taxi subsidy is a bad one. In fact, I’m really bothered that the proposal made it this far. It shows me that there’s an alarming lack of sensitivity on the part of the commission and the city manager to the needs of its most vulnerable citizens.”

Then, the inspiration hit me. There were some lessons I’d learned in the corporate world years ago. It was like a bolt out of the blue. How do the theologians put it? “God works in mysterious ways his wonders to perform.” I looked directly at Julia Johnson, the vice mayor. “When I was in the corporate world I learned there were four ways to do things. The wrong thing can be done the wrong way. The wrong thing can be done the right way. The right thing can be done the wrong way. And, the right thing can be done the right way. This, to me, is an example of doing the right thing the wrong way. We all want to save the city money, but this is a really bad idea. The best example I can think of to illustrate would be this. The neighborhood I live in has a slum-lord problem, with landlords taking advantage of people who can’t afford to buy a home. One solution might be to exercise some creative use of the doctrine of eminent domain. Then, to provide revenue for city programs we could retrofit the houses and develop a red light district.”

The laughter erupted. I’d made my point. But, I wasn’t done. “An idea like that might be acceptable for Amsterdam, but it’s not for Emporia. It would be trying to do the right thing the wrong way.” The room got silent for second. Then I delivered the blow I’d really wanted to land. “You’re public servants! Your job is to serve the people, and this proposal tells me that you lack sensitivity to the needs of the people living here. This is a really bad idea and the fact that this proposal got this far tells me that it’s a lesson you need to learn.”

When we were all done, the commissioners seemed inclined to protect the program. Good! But, I’m still troubled by the notion that this city’s leaders could even think that saving fifty thousand dollars on the backs of needy people was something that should be pursued.

When all was said and done I could see that at least one commissioner was painfully irritated by what I’d said. She was stung by the criticism. “We’re trying to do the best we can and we are sensitive.” I suppose that’s a step in the right direction.

By about 10:30 the army of the infirm was making it’s way out of the meeting room. We’d made our point.

The campaign for city commission hasn’t begun in earnest yet, but I think I've found at least one constituency - the silver haired, infirm, wheezing roses of Emporia, Kansas. When the campaign does begin I’m going to irritate the commissioners even more. I fully intend to play in the political gravel with these folks. I may not win, but, by God, they’ll know that when they try to pluck the petals from the roses, they’re also gonna’ get stuck by thorns like me.

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Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Reconciliation or Amnesty?

John 20:21-23 (New Living Translation)

“He spoke to them again and said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Then he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven. If you refuse to forgive them, they are unforgiven.”

On Sunday last Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki unveiled a twenty-eight point “national reconciliation plan.” As soon as the plan was announced American politicians and pundits began to weigh in. The response was, like much of what happens in Washington these days, generally along party lines. The Democrats, who support time-tables for withdrawal and “amnesty” for illegal aliens, are dead set against the al-Maliki plan. Most representative of the Democratic point of view is Senator Carl Levin of Michigan:

“For heaven's sake, we liberated that country. We got rid of a horrific dictator. We’ve paid a tremendous price. More than 2,500 Americans have given up their lives. The idea that they should even consider talking about amnesty for people who have killed people who liberated their country is unconscionable.”

I suppose it could be argued that the Democrats are being true to their principles, whatever they may be. The olive branch offered in the Senate’s immigration plan may not compare well with the plan offered by the Iraqi government. But I’m skeptical. It looks more like political positioning than expression of principle to me.

Prime Minister al-Maliki responded to the criticism by saying that:

“The launch of this national reconciliation initiative should not be read as a reward for the killers and criminals or acceptance of their actions. No, one thousand times no. There can be no agreement with them unless they face justice.”

I’m not entirely sure what to think. I want this war prosecuted to a just, victorious end. I want democracy to succeed in Iraq. I don’t want amnesty offered to terrorists. But, I also want the blood-letting to end.

Is al-Maliki’s plan a good step on the road to reconciliation or is it a sham that offers nothing but carte blanche for terrorists to continue the mayhem?

For me, the answers to those questions come from history.

This morning I spent some time re-reading a small portion of Jim McPherson’s “The Battle Cry of Freedom.” It deals with the dialogue between Grant, the victor, and Lee, the vanquished, at Appomattox in April of 1865:

“Then in McLean’s parlor the son of an Ohio tanner dictated surrender terms to the scion of the First Family of Virginia.”

“The terms were generous: officers and men could go home “not to be disturbed by U.S. authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside.” This clause had great significance. Serving as a model of the subsequent surrender of other Confederate armies, it guaranteed southern soldiers immunity from prosecution for treason. Lee asked another favor. In the Confederate army, he explained, enlisted men and cavalry and artillery owned their own horses; could they keep them. Yes, said Grant; privates as well as officers who claimed to own horses could take them home “to put a crop in to carry themselves and their families through the next winter.” “This will have the best possible effect upon the men,” said Lee, and “will do much toward conciliating our people.” After signing the papers, Grant introduced Lee to his staff. As he shook hands with Grant’s military secretary, Ely Parker, a Seneca Indian, Lee stared a moment at Parker’s dark features and said, “I am glad to see one real American here.” Parker responded, “We are all Americans.”

In a war where hundreds of thousands of Union soldiers died at the hands of their Confederate opposites there were, no doubt, thousands and thousands of grievances and unsettled scores. Yet, Grant was magnanimous in victory, and so was Abraham Lincoln, as evidenced by these beautiful words from his second inaugural:

“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Was Grant’s gesture amnesty or was it an attempt to reconcile? Did Lincoln’s words justify the Confederacy’s secession or did they offer reconciliation and peace? You be the judge.

In December of 1941, imperial Japan, in an act of naked aggression, attacked the United States fleet at Pearl Harbor. Thousands of Americans died that day and a bloody war followed. Hundreds of thousands more of America’s bravest fell during that war. On the other side of the world thousands of Americans died in order to liberate Europe from the grip of fascism. When the war ended America embarked on an ambitious plan to reconstruct Europe and to bring Japan and Germany back into the family of nations. Did we do the wrong thing by doing so? Surely it can’t be argued that we did. Today, Germany and Japan are vibrant democracies. Today, Japan is one of the world’s great economies. Today Germany and Japan are among our trusted allies. They have indeed been reconciled into the family of nations.

I served in Vietnam from 1965 to 1966. Unlike thousands of others who served there with me, I came back home safely. The only injuries I received were to my memory. Others who returned, like Senator John McCain, came home with the visible scars of years at the Hanoi Hilton. If any man had grievances with the North Vietnamese, it was McCain. Yet, he was one of the first of America’s leaders to call for normalization of relations between the United States and Vietnam. Did his recommendation justify the wounds inflicted on him years earlier? No, no, a thousand times no!

During the Vietnam years there was a little known program called “Chieu Hoi” (translated “Open Arms”). The aim of the program was to reconcile Viet Cong guerillas back into South Vietnamese society. It was enormously successful, bringing almost 200,000 former enemies back in to the mainstream of South Vietnamese life in the years it was offered.

I’m sure that anti-Vietnam detractors could argue that the program made little difference in the end. After all, we lost. But, it wasn’t “Chieu Hoi” that caused our defeat; it was American political will. That, however, is an argument for another time. The fact is, “Chieu Hoi” was a successful reconciliation program.

The beauty of the program was its simplicity. Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers were offered freedom passes, an opportunity to lay down their arms. In return, they would be given education, training in new vocational skills, a small amount of seed money, and the opportunity to help South Vietnam’s build a nation. It was, if you will, what some might call an amnesty plan.

How successful was the program? The following excerpt from a captured 1966 Viet Cong document sheds some light on it:

“The impact of increased enemy military operations and ‘Chieu Hoi’ programs has, on the whole, resulted in lowering morale of some ideologically backward men, who often listen to enemy radio broadcasts, keep in their pockets enemy leaflets, and wait to be issued weapons. This attitude on their part has generated an atmosphere of doubt and mistrust among our military ranks.”

Did this program change the minds of hard core Viet Cong cadres? No. But it did have a great impact on hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who wanted little more than an opportunity to live in peace and build a good life. Could Iraq’s reconciliation plan have a powerful negative effect on the plans of hard core terrorists there? Could it offer an opportunity for others to reconcile themselves to the society they left? I think it’s possible. If our aim in Iraq is victory and the most visible sign of that victory would be a stable democracy, then I say al-Maliki’s plan deserves more than the scorn many Democrats and conservative pundits are heaping on it.

I don’t want to be misunderstood. I would gladly meet Osama bin Laden or any of Iraq’s terrorists, one on one, one on two, or one on fifty. I would consider it a singular honor to bring, as the President has said, justice to the enemy. But, that said, I do support the Iraqi Prime Minister’s attempt to bring reconciliation to his war-torn country.

In a few months Nancy and I will be hosting a young Vietnamese woman who will be attending Emporia State University. It’s a three year commitment for us. In the conversations we’ve had to date I’ve found that a great deal of healing has taken place since the 1970’s. It seems that Americans and all things American are greatly admired there these days. I wouldn’t have dreamed that such a thing could happen back in 1965 and 1966 or in seventy-five when Saigon fell to the communists. I’m looking forward to being a small part of the reconciliation between my country and Thom’s. There’s much I believe I’ll learn, as will she.

Reconciliation works! It brought us back together as a nation a century and a half ago. It turned enemies into allies three generations ago. It has exorcised many of the demons of the Vietnam War. And, it can work in Iraq. That’s why I support the al-Maliki plan.

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The Civil War

Sunday, June 25, 2006

What's Sauce for the Geese is Sauce for the Commissioners

“In politics, stupidity is not a handicap”

Napoleon Bonaparte

Lately our city government in Emporia is becoming more and more like one of those old Laurel and Hardy shorts I used to watch on Saturday mornings when I was a kid. Back in those days the misadventures of a couple of comedians work their magic was supremely entertaining.

Our City Manager and our Commission here in this bastion of middle-American democracy seem to be trying to outdo the classic comedy I loved. The only problem is, what they’re doing is laughable, but it’s not a bit funny. The latest in their series of escapades came last week when the City Manager floated an idea that he claimed would save the city close to fifty thousand dollars a year. He recommended doing away with a taxi subsidy program whose primary beneficiaries are people of limited means. Many use the service to get groceries, go to doctor’s appointments, and so forth. As things currently work those folks pay a portion of the fare and the city chips in about two dollars for each coupon the city issues.

Maybe two dollars per ride doesn’t seem like to much to most of us. But, to folks on fixed incomes it’s more than just chump change.

I read Patrick Kelley’s take on the issue in Thursday’s edition of the Gazette and, to my surprise, I found myself in lockstep with him. Will wonders never cease?

This morning I fired off a letter to the Gazette, which follows:

Well sound the trumpets and beat the drums! There are some areas where Patrick Kelley and I agree. On the 22nd he wrote, “The City Manager’s proposal to drop the city’s discount taxi-program should be considered slowly and carefully. Very carefully and very slowly.”

I agree wholeheartedly!

If the City Manager and the Commissioners are really interested in reducing the cost of city government there are other options. In the spirit of altruism, for example, the Commissioners could forego their monthly salaries. Each of these public spirited acts could save the city six thousand dollars per year. If one, or all, of the Commissioners have done so already I commend them. If not, I highly recommend it. As a body, their heroic acts could save the city thirty thousand dollars a year, about two thirds of the target Steve Commons proposed in eliminating the taxi subsidy.

There are other areas that might also merit the City Manager’s review. One would be non-essential overtime. Another would be complete departmental reviews, looking for, and rooting out, administrative and personnel duplication. Another would be complete budget reviews and tighter budget targets. Perhaps this has been done, but many of us are skeptical, in the light of hundreds of thousands of missing dollars from the city’s coffers, that Emporia’s city government is a tightly run financial ship.

The City Manager and the Commissioners can and should do better by its citizens. Before they begin using people on fixed income as a source for funds, they need to fix things a bit closer to their own hearts and wallets.

Phil Dillon
Emporia, Kansas

Since I sent the letter another idea has come to mind. Maybe we should take the commissioners, the City Manager, and municipal management level employees off of salary and put them on commission. That way, if they don’t perform we won’t feel the need or obligation to pay them. I would allow us to maintain a good program and pull the reigns on our comic municipal bureaucracy in one fell swoop. I say that it’s the kind of sauce that’s as good for the commissioners as it is for us geese.

There’s going to be a public meeting this next Thursday to discuss the issue. I’ll be there. As soon as the issue is decided I’ll let you know which goose got sauced and which got cooked.

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Friday, June 23, 2006

Heaven or Hell?

John 14:1-6 (New Living Translation)

“Don't be troubled. You trust God, now trust in me. There are many rooms in my Father's home, and I am going to prepare a place for you. If this were not so, I would tell you plainly. When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am. And you know where I am going and how to get there.”
“No, we don't know, Lord,” Thomas said. “We haven't any idea where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.”

I came across an interesting survey recently done by According to the survey of 10,000 on line members:

“Conservatives are more confident than liberals that they'll avoid hell--and that they know someone who won't. Liberals are less confident about their own chances of escaping hell and less sure they can identify the damned.”

The survey went on to note that the primary line of demarcation was the ages old debate over faith versus works:

“For instance, 60% of born-again Christians (almost all of them Protestants) said the unfortunates were going to hell because they didn't have the “right beliefs,” compared to just 19% of Catholics who said that. Eighty percent of Catholics said it was because of the person's immoral actions, compared to 40% of born-agains. The same split persisted politically: liberals said damnation was determined by bad behavior; conservatives, by a smaller majority, thought beliefs mattered most.”

So, just who does get to go to heaven in the end? Will our good works get us there? Or will our belief?

A year or so I was at a civic meeting and a friend, noting that I was a member of a Pentecostal church (Foursquare), said that she was a Christian. I expressed my happiness for her. She followed on by saying that while Jesus was her way to heaven, He wasn’t everyone’s. “Jesus is my way, He just isn’t everyone’s.” I then told her that I did not believe that she was a Christian. She, quite naturally, became offended. “What do you mean by that? I just told you I was.” I reminded her that she also had said that Jesus was only one of the ways to heaven and explained to her that the statement flew in the face of what Jesus had to say about Himself, what His disciples believed about Him, and what the Christian Church has historically believed. Then I asked the crucial question. “Do you believe that you’ll make it to heaven when you pass from this life to the next? “I think so,” she said. “Well, it depends.” “On what?” I asked.
“Whether or not I’ve done enough good work to merit heaven.”
I once again reminded her that her thinking was not Christian thinking. And, once again she became offended.

Our conversation ended when I told her that she didn’t need to take offense. Christians interact with all sorts of people with all sorts of beliefs. We interact with Buddhists, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Humanists, Agnostics, Atheists, and folks with other belief systems as well. While I try to listen to them and understand them, I don’t assume that their belief system is Christian. We read philosophers like Aristotle, Plato, Sartre, Nietzche, Hume, and Bertrand Russell. While we find often find their work interesting, we do not find it Christian. These are not statements of offense; they are statements of fact.

Does one’s belief system matter? Absolutely.

Years before my encounter at the civic club a work associate complained to me that the Catholic church was being unreasonable with her. “How so?” I asked. “They’re telling me that in order to be a Catholic in good standing I need to believe certain things.”
“What things?”
“That Jesus was the Son of God?”
“You don’t believe that?”
“Well, this is really easy. Just don’t become a member of the Catholic Church.”
“But I want to become a Catholic in order to make the man I’m going to marry happy.”
Our conversation ended cordially enough, but I never could get her past the point of seeing that the Roman Catholic Church had every right, indeed an obligation, to expect its members to believe certain things. It seemed to me then, as it does now, an eminently reasonable position.

I suppose that in polite conversation the easiest route to take when situations like this come up is to do the “friendly thing.” We’ll all make it in the end. Right? After all, why make social interaction uncomfortable? The problem with that point of view, from a Christian perspective, is that it skirts the real issue. Jesus said things about life and about Himself that do make us feel uncomfortable. I often read the Sermon on the Mount and sometimes it makes me feel very uncomfortable. As I once heard, “The Sermon on the Mount is one of those places where the comfortable are afflicted and the afflicted receive comfort.”

Jesus said that He was indeed the Son of God. And, Jesus also said that He was The way to heaven, not one among many. While it may seem comfortable or fashionable to incorporate any believe system into the Christian umbrella, it won’t work. As C.S. Lewis once observed, “Jesus either was who He said He was or he was a poached egg.” Those are the choices we have – belief or unbelief. There is no neutral ground.

A couple of days ago I wrote about Christian belief, highlighting the Nicene creed. I did so because I believe that belief is critical to this question of heaven or hell. What we believe does matter. As J. Gresham Machen observed in 1923:

“From the beginning, the Christian gospel, as indeed the name “gospel” or “good news” implies, consisted in an account of something that had happened. And from the beginning, the meaning of the happening was set forth; and when the meaning of the happening was set forth then there was Christian doctrine. “Christ died” – that is history; “Christ died for our sins” – that is doctrine. Without these two elements, joined in an absolutely indissoluble union, there is no Christianity.” (See I Corinthians 15:3-7)

I believe in Jesus as He is revealed in Holy Writ, and I believe in Him as He is revealed to us in the doctrines and creeds of the Church. I believe He is the only way to heaven. One day I’ll shed my mortal coil. When that time comes I’m not going to trust my eternal fate to my own goodness, intellect, or wiliness. I determined long ago that if left to my own devices, even at my very best, I would never make it past the pearly gates. Like everyone else I will one day stand before the Supreme Judge of the Universe. When I’m called before that bar of justice I know I’ll need an advocate and I have no intention of representing myself. That’s why I am supremely confident that I will make it to heaven.

How about you?

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Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Democrat's Strategic Position on Iraq - Shhhh, Go Back to Sleep!

“My good friends, for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time...Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.”

Neville Chamberlain - 1938

North Korea is on the verge of launching an intercontinental ballistic missile, one capable of hitting the west coast of the United States. Two days ago Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that if the missile were to be launched it would be “a very serious matter and, indeed, a provocative act should North Korea decide to launch that missile.” Then, to further reassure our nervous allies in Asia she declared, “I can assure everyone that it (a missile launch) would be taken with utmost seriousness.”

The language sounds all too familiar. Back in 1998 when North Korea was expanding its nuclear capability and developing long range missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads, Secretary of State Madeline Albright rattled the saber on Bill Clinton’s behalf:

“We are at a critical juncture in our relations with Pyongyang. The choice is for the North to behave in a way that allows for a positive direction in our relations.”

Apparently all the saber rattling didn’t put the fear of God into Kim Jong-il. The Taepo dong 1 of 1998 has now become the Taepo dong 2 of 2006. All that eight years of talking did was buy Kim the time he so desperately wanted. Well, he got it and now we’ve got one helluva’ crisis on our hands.

Of course, back then Bill Clinton had a lot on his mind. Angry Republicans were eagerly roasting him on a political spit. While he may have wanted to focus on Kim, he was stuck with Monica Lewinsky and impeachment like Brer Rabbit to tar. Given that, the security of the American people and the free world must have seemed a trifle.

This morning I listened with great interest to a C-Span interview with Representative Adam Schiff as he pitched some sort of diplomatic settlement with Iran over their nuclear weapons program. His approach, it seemed to me, was reasonable. After all, it is better to talk than fight. But, as it reasonable as it may have sounded, the approach does have its gaps in reasoning. First and foremost among them is the notion that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the mullahs in Tehran are going to negotiate in good faith. Second is the notion that Iran’s leadership is concerned with world opinion, which is decidedly against them. They’re no more worried about what the United States, NATO, the European Union, Israel, or the United Nations think than Kim is worried about whether or not his people eat grass and starve while he builds nuclear and missile programs.

There are two bottom lines converging here. The overwhelming majority of us want peace in the Korean peninsula and the Middle East and we’re willing to negotiate for it. Kim, Admadinejad, and the mullahs want to buy time.

And, they’re getting it!

How long do you suppose it will be till our satellite reconnaissance discovers some hybrid of the Taepo dong 2 sitting on a launch pad somewhere in Iran? How much time do we have until the Iranians have nuclear capability and the means to deliver a lethal blow to their enemies in the Middle East? And worst of all, how long do you think it would be until al Qaeda in Iraq would have the same capability if we abandoned Iraq now? How long do you think it would be until Osama bin Laden was the de facto head of Iraq as a failed, then a rogue state? What do you suppose al Qaeda in Iraq would do with nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons if they had them? Do you think they’d be inclined to negotiate? Or do you think they just might use them?

Back in 1938 we had a great ocean protecting us from the dangers of national socialism. But, as Lance Morrow noted in 2003:

“Distance once helped dampen the effects of human wickedness; and of course, weapons once had limited range. But evil has burst into a new dimension. The globalization, democratization, and miniaturization of the instruments of destruction (nuclear weapons or their diabolical chemical-biological step-brothers) mean a quantum leap in the delivery systems of evil. This levels the playing field, so to speak – and the level field has fungus on it. Every tinhorn with a chemistry set becomes a potential world-historical force with more discretionary destructive power at hand than the great monsters from Caligula to Hitler ever had. In the new dimension, micro-evil (the dark impulse to rape or murder, say) and macro-evil (the urge to genocide) achieve an ominous reunion in any bid for the apocalyptic gesture.”

While all of this frightening enough to contemplate, some Democrats are calling for our retreat from the Middle East. Last week on Meet the Press Representative John Murtha recommended that we take our troops from Iraq and stage them in Okinawa. That’s right – Okinawa! As the boys who market Guinness often say, “Brilliant!” And, John Kerry is now advocating a pullout of American troops in Iraq by the end of the year. Thankfully, his amendment attempting to codify that position was defeated in the Senate today.

Murtha’s and Kerry’s positions are tantamount to turning the Middle East over to “tinhorns with chemistry sets.” Brilliant!

It’s hard for me to fathom what’s on their minds. I’d like to think the best, but I can’t. Their positions have much more to do with power than they do with principle. Murtha seems to relish the notion of being majority leader if the Democrats win in the 2006 mid-term elections. John Kerry still has his sights set on the Oval Office.

Finally, and most frighteningly, Kerry and Murtha may get their wishes granted. The Democrats may win the mid-terms. If they do they could then bog the President down in impeachment hearings and find the necessary votes to cut off funding for the work in Iraq. We could find ourselves beating a hasty retreat to Okinawa. Then, just before the fires begin to rain down upon us from the heavens, they can comfort us with the age old words of appeasement – “Go home and get a nice quiet sleep!”

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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Blame It On the Pentecostals

“These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own.”
- G. K. Chesterton

I’ve been plodding my way through Kevin Phillips’ “American Theocracy” for about a month now. I first got interested in the book when I saw the author on a C-Span interview. At the same time, I’m also reading Amos Yong’s “The Spirit Poured Out on All Flesh – Pentecostalism and the Possibility of Global Theology.”

After reading the seventh chapter of Phillips’ work yesterday I realized just how dangerous religious folk, particularly Southern Baptists, Pentecostals, and “fundamentalists” really are. Permit me to explain.

Phillips’s thesis is that a convergence of greedy oil men, “fundamentalist pulpiteers,” and an enormous load of debt are converging, in conspiratorial fashion, to bring about religious rule in the United States and war in the Middle East. All of this is being done to hasten Armageddon and the Parousia.

In his early chapters he takes a swipe or two at the fundamentalists:

“In 1983 James Watt, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of the interior, was forced to resign because of pressure from environmentalists who regarded him as hostile to their cause. Part of the suspicion lay in Watt’s conservative religion – he was the first cabinet secretary to belong to the Pentecostal Assemblies of God – and in suppositions that he was preoccupied with waiting for Christ’s second coming rather than with environmental stewardship. This was an early instance of a connection that has since become more controversial, and interest in Watt rekindled in 2001 when his protégée, Coloradan Gale Norton, was named secretary of the interior by George W. Bush. Norton had worked for Watt at the Mountain States Legal Foundation in 1979-1981 and again at the Interior Department. Like Watt, she was seen by the environmental movement as a foe.”

While Phillips did (graciously I assume) note that several major print media did apologize to Watt in 2005 for having misquoted him twenty-three years earlier, he didn’t make it clear what Norton’s critics were troubled by. Association? Her views on Armageddon?

Phillips launches into the deep in chapter seven (“Church, State, and National Decline”). It begins with a prominent epigraph from a 2004 statement by journalist Bill Moyers:

“One of the biggest changes in politics in my lifetime is that the delusional is no longer marginal. It has come in from the fringe, to sit in the seat of power in the Oval Office and in Congress. For the first time in our history, ideology and theology hold a monopoly of power in Washington.”

From there he goes on to cite, chronologically, how Christianity was responsible for just about everything from the fall of Rome to World War I. In the United States, he claims, the movement away from the mainline denominations to the fringes of fundamentalism and Pentecostalism began early in the twentieth century and has now grown to the point it has gathered substantial political power. In one light-hearted jab at the Bush administration he cited a piece from the Washington Post:

“At the General Services Administration, the office-maintenance arm of the federal government, Bush appointees held lunch-hour revival meetings in the front hall, making it seem, in the words of the Washington Post, “more like the foyer of a Pentecostal storefront church.”

I can only assume from what I’ve read to this point that Mr. Phillips would prefer something less controversial to be happening in the halls of government than religious ecstasy. Oral sex and interns perhaps?

To his credit, Mr. Phillips does try to tackle a very big subject – what he sees as the convergence of radical American religion, big oil, and borrowed money. He cites our war in Iraq as the cornerstone of his argument. Greedy oil men want Iraq’s oil. Radical fundamentalist and Pentecostal Christians want to make Armageddon happen. And, it’s all being funded by a mountain of debt.

Now I can’t speak for the oil men, but I can speak as a Pentecostal. One of the things I believe in as a matter of fundamentals is that Jesus is going to one day return to the earth. You may think of me as you like, but I really believe that. Something else I believe along with millions of other Pentecostal Christians is that when He does return it will be in God’s sovereign time. I cannot make it happen. George Bush cannot make it happen. Kevin Phillips cannot make it happen. As Bob Dylan said back in seventy-nine:

“Of every earthly plan that be known to man,
He is unconcerned
He’s got plans of His own to set up His throne
When He returns”

Further, I believe the same things that Christians have believed for almost two thousand years. I believe in the fundamentals of the Nicene Creed:

“We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.”

“And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father by whom all things were made; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man, and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried, and the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father. And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end.”

“And we believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceedeth from the Father
and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets. And we believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins. And we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

That statement forms, for me and millions of other Christians, the foundation of our belief. I can even be bold enough to state categorically that this is normative Christianity. I would hope that mainline Christians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, Disciples of Christ, and others believe that statement. To Phillips these fundamentals may seem to be disturbing, but I a millions of my fellows take great comfort in them.

I think what’s really got the burr under his saddle is that religious folk are getting involved in politics. Or, to put it better, the wrong types of religious folk are getting involved. It’s those delusional fundamentalists and Pentecostals who are causing the problems.

If it will help any I’ll reassure him that all we want to do is participate, not rule. As Amos Yong said on our behalf:

“If the genius of Pentecostalism is its yearning to experience afresh the power of the Holy Spirit manifest in the first-century church and if Luke is the author most concerned with, and interested in, the operations of the Spirit, then this convergence should not be surprising. This Pentecostal vision of original Christianity is animated by the conviction that the accounts in the book of Acts (especially) are not merely of historical interest but an invitation to participate in the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit.”

In other words, many of us want to practice a faith that has meaning. We want to live it out.

Finally, I can assure Mr. Phillips that I’m no conspirator. My views on the current situation in the Middle East are informed as much by my politics as they are by my faith. I’m a Woodrow Wilson Democrat. I’m a John F. Kennedy Democrat. I served in harm’s way back in the sixties because I believed that I had an obligation to the world and the people of Vietnam. Today, as a matter of politics I believe we were, and are still, right to have stopped the brutality of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam’s carnage in Iraq. My views have nothing to do with oil or Armageddon. It had, as I see it, everything to do with right and wrong. I supported what we started out to do. I support it now. And, I’ll support it till the issue is resolved. As a matter of faith I see our work in the Middle East as a noble work. The Christian humanist Erasmus once noted that we are “citizens of the world.” I believe those words. I believed them when Bill Clinton ordered America’s sons and daughters to stop the genocide in the Balkans back in the nineties. I believed them on September 11, 2001 and the days of liberation that followed for the people of Afghanistan and Iraq.

While I realize that the United States cannot fix every world problem, I also believe that we cannot ignore them. We are citizens of the world! If this is the type of thinking that makes me see irrational or fanatical to men like Kevin Phillips, I gladly accept the epithet.

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Sunday, June 18, 2006

The Night Shift Saint

Philippians 2:1-7 (New Living Translation)

“Is there any encouragement from belonging to Christ? Any comfort from his love? Any fellowship together in the Spirit? Are your hearts tender and sympathetic? Then make me truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one heart and purpose.
Don't be selfish; don't live to make a good impression on others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourself. Don't think only about your own affairs, but be interested in others, too, and what they are doing.
Your attitude should be the same that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not demand and cling to his rights as God. He made himself nothing; he took the humble position of a slave and appeared in human form.”

It happened sometime during the roaring nineties. The Dow was up and political morality was down. While the giddiness of profits was moving into the economic stratosphere, politics was descending into the gutter. It was, as Dickens once said, “the best of times and the worst of times.”

Nancy and I were working at FedEx’s Eastern Region headquarters in Parsippany, New Jersey. This placed us in a perfect position to not only work productively for a great company, but also to see all the culture and history of the eastern seaboard. It was during these times that we took one of our three or four vacations to Washington, D.C., ostensibly to see as much of the city’s history and culture that we could absorb. We spent part of one day watching a Senate debate about the North American Free Trade Act between Fritz Hollings and Ted Kennedy, which Hollings, surprisingly, won. The good senator from Massachusetts didn’t comport himself well at all. He appeared to me to be in desperate need of the hair of the dog. Seeing him in such a state reminded me of the times back in the sixties when I often woke up in the morning looking for the tomato juice and beer to relieve the results of the previous night’s merry-making. As I recall we also spent about a half an hour at the Supreme Court building. Nancy had often told me that there was a not-so famous Catron who had served as an Associate Justice on the Great Court. The evidence of her claim, a portrait of Associate Justice John Catron, hangs in the basement of the building along with the other mug shots. I say “mug shots” because I suspect a lot of Americans have famous relatives they’d rather not claim. Justice Catron was the famous black sheep of the Catron family for his unfathomable vote in the Dred Scott decision of 1858. Since that time, very few, if any, Catrons have had much use for lawyers.

There were also lighter moments. On our visit to the White House some knucklehead decided to test the rule against taking photos during the tour. As soon as his camera flashed three Secret Servicemen pounced on him, confiscated the camera, and had him in handcuffs. I’ve heard that Muhammad Ali claimed he could turn off the light switch and be in bed before the room went dark. Upon seeing the handiwork of the Secret Service, I think they’d give the champ a real run for his money. It was, if you’ll pardon the pun, over in a flash.

By the time the day was over, we’d also seen Hsing-Hsing the panda at the national zoo and Archie Bunker’s chair at one of the Smithsonian museums. All in all, it was a very rewarding, interesting day.

After dinner we made our way back to our room at the Lombardy, a very nice hotel in Foggy Bottom, about three our four blocks from the White House and all the other halls of America’s national power. My last fleeting memory as sleep began to envelop my body was being impressed with it all. There’s a lot of powerful stuff going on in our nation’s capitol. There are great debates and decisions, some good and some bad. There are monuments to great men. There’s the original copy of our Declaration of Independence. Little did I realize as I fell asleep that I was going to learn an even greater lesson about power from the night shift saint.

At about two or so in the morning Nancy nudged me. “Do you smell smoke?” she asked. I groaned and told her to go back to sleep. She nudged me again. “Slick, I think I smell smoke.” I sat up in bed, rubbed my eyes and took a deep breath. Nothing. “Go back to sleep, everything’s fine,” I reassured her. She nudged me again. “I’m telling you, I smell smoke. Let’s get up and go downstairs.” The third nudge told me that Nancy wasn’t going to be denied. We got up and made our way down to the lobby. By the time we got there Nancy told her story. Years earlier she’d lived in an apartment building that had caught fire. It was a devastating event. While she came out of it all okay, two or three people who lived in apartments close to hers died in the fire. Since that time she’s had a deathly fear of fire. I remember feeling badly for having taken her nudges so lightly and suggested we might find a place to get a cup of coffee. The desk clerk told us there was an all-night Burger King next door and we walked, hand in hand, over to an encounter like few we’ve ever had together.

I didn’t notice much when we first got there. One Burger King in Washington, D.C. is pretty much the same as any Burger King anywhere in the world. A Whopper in Washington, D.C. is pretty much the same as a Whopper in Tokyo. It’s the kind of familiarity that’s supposed to bring comfort. I like to think of it as the “hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, special orders don’t upset us” syndrome. But, as we sat down at a table with our coffee, my stereotypes were about to be shattered. My first glimpse of the new reality came when I noticed several homeless people shuffle in. As they did, I made sure my wallet was secure and kept a watchful eye on them. They were ragged, dirty, and hungry, as is the custom of the homeless. They made their way slowly to front counter, eyeing the food being prepared. As they did a tall African-American man came out of the kitchen. He was tall, about six feet three, well muscled. His face was round and cherubic, giving the appearance of peace and grace under fire. I’m sure he’d seen it all on the night shift and there was little that appeared to faze him. He leaned over and asked one of the homeless men, “Whatchya’ want?” There was no answer. “Hungry?” he asked. They nodded in the affirmative. The man, who I now assumed was the manager, went back into the kitchen. A few minutes later he came back with mops and buckets in tow. “Here,” he said. “Mop up a bit and I’ll give you something to eat.” The homeless men complied and did what I’d call a creditable job. When their work was done the manager inspected it and gave them each a Whopper, fries and a Coke. They thanked him profusely, wolfed down the food, and left. As they did the manager waved and said, “See you guys tomorrow night.” Nancy and I sat watching, transfixed. “Did you see that?” I asked. She nodded. “Amazing, wasn’t it.” It was, as we were to find out later, only the beginning of the lesson.

As we sipped our coffee, Nancy called my attention to a man sitting at a table behind me and catty-corner to the right. The first thing I noticed was the navy blue beret perched on his head. As I made my way down I gazed at his long, thin face. It was weathered and worn. Then I was caught up in a blaze of white. It seemed that everything, down to his shoes, was painted white. It was as though he’d gone wild with a gallon or two of Sherwin Williams primer. There was a sketchbook on the floor propped up against his right leg. On the table in front of him sat a tin of what appeared to be a set of Woolworth’s water colors and a large piece of paper with some sort of avant-garde work in progress. Occasionally, the man would hold his right thumb up about a foot in front of his face and survey the restaurant. I assumed as I watched that he was doing some sort of abstract imitation of “The Potato Eaters.” After a while the manager made his way over to the man and leaned over. “Whatchya’ workin’ on? There was no response. The manager put his right hand on the man’s shoulder. “Can I see your sketches?” A trace of a smile came up on the man’s face as he picked up the sketchbook and handed it to the manager. After a minute or so of browsing, the manager declared the works to be masterpieces, patted the man on the back, and continued on his rounds. The man’s smile got broader. He arched his back and sat up straight. His thumb moved in front of his face once more as he proudly surveyed his living canvas.

At a table directly behind Nancy he stopped and began to talk to a fiftiesh man who appeared to be very troubled. There laid out on the table in front of him was a stack of papers. The manager pulled up a chair and sat down with the man. “You doin’ okay?” he asked. The man placed his face into his cupped hands. “Damned V.A.” he answered. “I don’t understand what they want from me.” After a few minutes of going over the paperwork with the man the manager determined that the V.A. was trying to get some answers about his disability claim. “I’ll help you with it,” the manager offered. “I’ll call them in the morning when I get off if you’ll trust me with the paperwork.” The man happily agreed. As he got up to go back into the kitchen, the manager offered a small prayer for the man. “Bless him lord, give him comfort and help.” It wasn’t one of those great prayers prayed by the booming baritones over at the National Cathedral. There was no mention of “The Ground of All Being.” It was, however, a prayer akin to the widow’s two mites, seemingly unnoticed, but heard loudly in the Halls of Heaven.

By about three-thirty Nancy was ready to go back to the Lombardy. As we made our way, our conversation was filled with a deep sense of gratefulness for what we’d seen and learned. We’d seen the night shift saint, laboring in obscurity, just a few blocks from the seats of our nation’s temporal power. While bills were being debated and billions spent, a tall African-American man with the face of a cherub and a heart close to God was doing the things most often unseen or recognized. A Whopper for a few minutes work. A kind word to a mentally challenged “artist.” A helping hand to a needy veteran.

I’ve heard it said that there are a lot of powerful people in Washington, D.C. After our encounter at the all night Burger King I’m sure there’s at least one. It’s the night shift saint.

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Saturday, June 17, 2006

The Toxic Effects of Fame

Luke 20:46 (New Living Translation)

“Beware of these teachers of religious law! For they love to parade in flowing robes and to have everyone bow to them as they walk in the marketplaces. And how they love the seats of honor in the synagogues and at banquets.”

Anonymity can often be a great gift. I realize this flies in the face of the tenor of our times. We’re a culture obsessed with celebrity and fame. Laboring in obscurity is most often seen as the unproductive, ordinary life. On one side of our social equations we have superstars and megastars. One the other we have “ordinary” people. It’s our culture’s way of proclaiming that some lives are more worthy of living than others.

It’s not that fame and notoriety are necessarily bad things. Some of us handle it responsibly. Mother Theresa and Billy Graham come to mind. So does the Irish rocker Bono. They have, by God’s grace, found causes in life that transcend their fame and they use that fame to further those causes, not focus attention on themselves. For Mother Theresa it was the plight of India’s dying poor and the un-born. For Billy Graham it’s the gospel. For Bono it’s the needs of Africa’s desperate peasants.

Most of our superstars, however, don’t handle the fame they’ve been given very well at all. Million dollar newscasters, whose only gift is the ability to read a teleprompter, come to mind. So does Madonna. At the heart of their celebrity there’s an overgrown messianic complex at work. They’ve come to believe that their fame has made them much better than the “ordinary” people who heap adoration upon them. Like Nebuchadnezzar of old, they love to hear the words “O king, live forever.” What’s even worse is that their megalomania is so highly developed they actually believe what they hear about themselves.

The Christian Church is far from guiltless when it comes to this cult of celebrity. We’ve divided ourselves along social, political, and theological fault lines, left and right. On one hand we have the disciples of men like Tony Campolo. On the other we have the followers of men like Don Wildmon. The more I see it, the more I realize that it’s all orchestrated to gain fame and notoriety. What they do is done not to further a cause, but to focus public attention on themselves or lob rhetorical mortar shells at their enemies. The aim isn’t reconciliation. It’s fame and the destruction of an enemy. It’s a twenty-first century version of the old contest in which observers noted, “Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands.”

Who’s going to win? It’s hard to say since the wheel’s still in spin. One thing is certain, though. There will be a lot of casualties by the time it’s all over.

What the world needs now is less fame and more anonymity. The Church, particularly, needs to step back from the limelight and move gently into the glorious shadows of ordinariness. More of my thoughts on that will come tomorrow with “The Night Shift Saint.”

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